There's a lot of elements to building a good team and not all of them include being the best skater or the best derby player.
And sometimes being the best teammate on the track and off the track is better than being a really good skater. And I don't think it's valued so much, which is unfair, but that's sort of life itself is we don't value the people who are really good at supporting others.
Hey guys, it's Jen from Pincurl Girls. And this is the GIRLBRAVE podcast. I am so excited about today's guest. This is someone who my daughter and I have been talking about for a few years now. And I went out on a limb and sent her an Instagram DM and asked her if she'd be on the show. She said, yes, I am so excited that I got to interview the legendary roller derby star...Bonnie Thunders!
Bonnie Thunders is considered to be one of the greatest players of modern day roller derby. She has worked very hard from the beginning from being named rookie of the year to the most valuable player of the year. She's won best jammer award multiple times. And she's also won the Derby News Network Reader's most valuable jammer award. Several times. Bonnie Thunders also has represented the United States in international play having been selected for the team USA roster for the roller Derby world cup in both 2011, 2014 and 2018. Let's meet Bonnie!
All right, Welcome Bonnie Thunders to the GIRLBRAVE podcast! I'm super excited to have you here. My daughter has been following you for a long time and after doing some research. You have been called the LeBron James of modern day Roller Derby. What does that feel like when you hear that?
Well, first off, thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here on the show with you. Yeah. When I hear some comparisons to the professional athletes, it feels gratifying for sure, but like it legitimizes our sport in a way, but at the same time it feels unreal and kind of strange because we're pretty far from a professional sport, even though we definitely, you know, train very hard and take it seriously. It still feels a little bit removed from reality.
Well, yeah, looking on the outside in you guys are just as fierce and just as tough.
So I'd love the names that Derby girls come up with. How did you come up with your name and does giving yourself that persona changed the way you feel about yourself?
My name is taken from a guitarist from a punk rock band. His name is Johnny Thunders. And he was in New York Dolls as well as had his own band. And honestly it was just it's a musician that I like and I thought that the name sounded cool. And when I started derby in 2006 that was kind of all you were really looking for at the time was like a cool sounding name. So I, you know, Johnny Thunders had a pretty tragic life, so it's not like I'm somebody who I'm trying to amplify his sort of life or anything like that.
But for me, I guess the name itself didn't really change the way I felt about myself, but maybe change the way that like, maybe others perceived, perceive you, you know, like if you have, depending on your name, it kind of give somebody a different first impression of you. So I think that it's more about others' perception of you than like maybe your own for me anyways, than my own perception of myself.
Yeah. That's a good distinction. You give it so much when you're out there skating. And I was watching some videos yesterday and you're like, I'm going to give it as much as, as much as I can and whatever people ask me, I'm going to give it to them. Where does that drive come from? And how do you think you could teach or coach that perhaps into a young athlete who maybe doesn't have that natural instinct?
Well, yeah, the drive, I mean, it definitely comes from a place of wanting to do the best that I can, especially in the team sport, thinking about being the best teammate that I can be for my teammates and also performing at my top level because others are depending on me. So I think that's really where it comes from is, obviously like everyone, I think a lot of people who want to play derby want to be the best that they can be. But for me, it's very much about like being the best for others. Not necessarily just doing it because I want notoriety or I want, you know, fame or whatever comes from being good at roller derby, but it really is about being, being the best I can be for my teammates.
So yeah, I think sometimes I've been told that I have like a bit of a cold persona because I'm very serious and I like to skate for the job that I have to do. But I think my teammates can attest to, I have, I definitely have a warm personality. It's just for them and not so much for everyone else.
Yeah. When I was younger, I played or tried to play team sports and I actually stopped playing because I didn't want to let down my team. Do you have, do you have any advice for maybe someone that's not all that great and, and, and is nervous about making their team worse perhaps by being on it?
Well, I would say that there's a lot of elements to building a good team and not all of them include being the best skater or the best derby player. And sometimes being the best teammate on the track and off the track is better than being a really good skater. And I don't think it's valued so much, which is unfair, but that's sort of life itself is we don't value the people who are really good at supporting others. We value shiny, shiny stars. I think that it's important to know that for every like great skater that's on the track, there's at least five other people or four other people backing that person up. And without you that person can't be the best. So a team full of superstars is not nearly as effective as a team full of good teammates.
I love that. Thank you. I wish I would've heard that when I gave up.
Yeah. that's sad to hear that.
Yeah. You are a fearless jammer. What's the feeling you have inside when you're out there skating.
Let's see when I'm out there skating, it sounds weird, but I don't feel a lot. I try not to let too many emotions overcome me in those moments because I have to play at a very Zen place. If I get too emotional, then that's when I think that's a lot of the times when I pick up fouls, when I do things that aren't the best decisions. So, I really focus on being as calm and relaxed as possible, which is obviously easier said than done. And, you know, I think that a lot of practice has gotten me to that point. I still get nervous. I still obviously get passionate in moments, but I always have to try to come back to that really calm Zen place.
And just really look to my teammates for, for that same emotional state. You know, if we get too fired up, it could definitely, it can definitely hurt, but then you also don't want to have too little energy or emotion because you still play below what you need to play. So it's really finding a balance, but I think the nice thing about a team sport is that everybody plays at a different level. So you have some skaters who really need to play at like 110% to do the job. And others can't play at 110%. Otherwise they're going to be in the box or just like not doing the right thing in the moment.
So I think, again, looking at like your team and kind of figuring out where you fit in in there. But for me, yeah, it really is playing in just sort of a Zen relaxed, calm place of like repetition and just like comfort.
And how do you get into that Zen spot?
Yeah, I think that a lot of that comes from practice and physically practicing in that mental state and putting myself in practice in situations of stress and anxiety. So, you know, when I practice, I really focus on failing because I want to figure out how to fail and practice and that way in a game I don't I'm not failing for the first time and then panicking but you know, so many people in practice want to be the best in practice, and we all should bring our best selves to practice and try a hundred percent for sure, but it doesn't help us to win every drill. It really actually helps to put yourself in the most vulnerable place in practice with teammates that you trust so that you can then you, your body and your mind knows how to get out of those moments. And when you're in a pressure situation in a game, you'll have that experience.
How do you get yourself to be able to be in a failure type position while you're in practice?
I think it's about like physically letting somebody beat you to then have to figure out how to beat them because you know, derby is a bit of a chess match, right? And so I'm always looking at like, what is this skater going to do? And what do I need to do first in order to prevent that skater from like executing their thing. So in practice, I test a lot with like, letting people win moments, not, I don't want to say letting people win moments, that sounds like I'm always winning, but letting somebody get me in a block in a position that I don't want to be in to then figure out how to get out of it. Does that make sense?
Yeah, that totally makes sense. I don't think we let ourselves, or even say out loud that we want to be able to fail, but as, as we all learn, the more you fail, the more you learn. Right? So I totally, I love that, but I have never heard that necessarily put in those words and especially when you're practicing for a sport.
Yeah. I think it's really important to let yourself be vulnerable with your teammates. Yeah.
Yeah. I mean, especially these days with Instagram and social media, you know, there's so much pressure, I feel like for girls to just be so perfect at the very first time and, and not be not show any vulnerabilities. And so I appreciate you saying that because I do feel like that needs to be said because you are definitely a role. And I think that helps when girls can hear that.
Right. I think it's important too, for coaches and for leagues to create a space that allows people to be vulnerable without being punished and not always celebrate the best, the best, the best, you know, our culture is so obsessed with the best being the best, the biggest, the greatest, but, you know, we have to kind of break down, break down those things and not really focus on that because it's not the end goal that, that that's important, you know, it's the, the process and the path to get there.
Yeah. And the experience as you go through it.
So the reason I really want to talk to you is I was just looking at my daughter playing basketball right now, and, some, some girls (she's in sixth grade), some girls are super fierce out there and just, we'll just do everything. And then there's other girls who aren't as fierce.
And as, as we grow up, as women, I don't feel like we're taught that as much to be aggressive, to go out there and just, and give it that, that, that fierceness. And I know at one point I talked to my daughter and I said, why don't you use your derby and get up and use your body? And she goes, well, that's my friend. I didn't want to hurt her.
What would you say to my daughter or other girls out there that aren't naturally... have that aggression to let themselves have it, because I know she has it, she's body slammed before, and she's tough, but she's not letting herself do that.
Right, yeah. Fear of what others think is a big thing, like you mentioned. And I think that having a conversation with your friends and your teammates about challenge. Challenging each other is really important. Also, I think it gets complicated because personal competition with your teammates is hard to deal with. And it can feel really icky sometimes to have that relationship with, you know, to have a competitive relationship with somebody that you care about.
So I think it's really important to talk about it. And to really acknowledge that, like, you know, you're going hard on each other to make each other better because at the end of the day, again, it's a team sport. So moving into playing against other teams, you want to have, you want to be able to have that mindset and not worry so much when you're playing against another team of what, you know, you might offend somebody because you need to walk off the field or the, the track or whatever your sport is, and, and still feel good about your performance.
And you know, that you respected your teammates, but at the same time in the moment, those people are not on your team, and you need to be able to not worry too much about offending or hurting someone if you're just really in it, in it for the sport, you know?
But respect is, is really important within team when you're playing against other skaters, you want to make sure that, like I said, you can walk away and be like, you know, everything I did out there like I'm okay with, and I feel good about my decision making in the moment, and I don't regret anything. So you never want to have regrets after a game.
And that's great. Yeah.
I guess, the other thing I would just say too, is growing up, I never really felt like my parents treated me like a girl or a boy or any gender. They just let me be. And I think that was really important for my, for growing up, because I never, from my family anyways, felt like I had to be a certain way because of my gender. I was allowed to kind of like play how I wanted and act how I wanted. And not there wasn't too many labels that were created and I could wear what I want. I could go run around outside. Which is mostly what I did growing up. I did play with dolls, there wasn't a lot of boundaries around, like what was expected of me in that way. And I do think that that for parents is, is really important, you know, to let your kids just be kids.
Yeah. Yeah. I definitely agree. All right. So now I have some questions from the No Coast Junior Derby Girls.
All right. Madmelon asks. Do you feel like people stereotype you a lot when they find you play, find out you played Roller Derby?
Yeah. I definitely think people stereotype me, especially since I'm relatively skinny and small, but muscular. I think that the first impression is like a, wow, you're so small and you, you play roller derby? So I think that their stereotype is like one of that I must be tough and fierce and especially for my size. And I always try to like, you know. Oh, they also think that I must be violent, like in which I hate that word I hate, but roller derby is not violent. Roller derby is aggressive. Roller derby is not violence out there. So, you know, I really try to downplay that stereotype cause I, I really don't like that one.
What is one misconception about roller derby that you often have to debunk?
Most common misconception about roller derby is that it's fake and that we intentionally elbow each other and hit each other. And so yeah, elbows, for some reason, elbows is always the thing that everybody is like, Oh yeah, you must, you know, elbow people and do this like big elbow gesture. So I think that's the biggest thing to debunk and people still think it's fake.
And honestly, too, for me, because a lot of the folks that I'm talking to are, maybe a little bit older and they still think it's on a bank track. So, you know, a lot of people like, "oh yeah, I would watch roller derby when I was a kid." And I'm like, okay, well, it's not on bank track anymore. And it's a real sport without staged fighting. And the outcome is not predetermined. Those are kind of the three things I always need to clarify.
What is your favorite part about roller derby?
That's a tough question. I have a lot of things that I like about roller derby. I would say that my favorite part is like the team cohesion. I love working with a group of people towards a common goal.
All right. Sofierca, this is my daughter, she wants. To know, what would you tell your younger self that, you know now?
Yeah, I've been thinking about this one a lot actually. Especially after moving to Portland from New York and like thinking back to some of the ways that I captain the team. And I think what I would tell my younger self is to let my guard down and have more emotional relationships with people and be a little bit more compassionate because that has not always been my strong point. I sometimes suffer from being very compassionate for animals and not very compassionate for people. So that is something that I'm working on,
Emforcer wants to know... What do you think makes roller derby so special to so many people then specifically what makes it special to you?
I think roller derby, what makes roller derby special for the majority of people is that it is pretty unlike anything else in most derby players, worlds where it's female dominated women run. That is not really the case for most things that anyone in society is doing. So I think that makes it very special because it, it certainly changes the way that we, that we do things.
And I think what makes it so special for me is that with all of it, roller derby is, obviously going through a bit of an awakening right now. And that's really good, but I think what makes it so special is that it's always ready to confront those issues and work through them. I started in 2006, it's changed so much and I think it continues to evolve and it needs to continue to be able to take criticism and move through it. And so for me, it's been really special because I've seen, I've seen it just change and evolve in a positive way as time has gone on. And so I hope it continues in that direction.
How has roller derby improved your confidence as an athlete and when do you feel most confident while playing roller derby?
It's definitely improved my confidence because it's the best the sport I've been the best at and my whole life. So I played sports since I was like six years old. And I was always good at sports, but I was never like great at sports. So I think that it just being really good at something improves your confidence automatically.
I also think too that like what, I guess what also improved my confidence in it as able to take the other sports that I used to play. And they like gave me this automatic bump in roller derby, even though soccer. I mean, one of them is ice skating. And so obviously that's skating. And so that translates very directly, but I think that so many other sports translate to roller derby.
And so people can kind of bring that sport into roller derby and use that as part of how they play and like part of how they succeed. So I think that's really a really unique feature. I think I missed the second part of the question.
When do you feel most confident while playing roller derby?
Well I feel like, I could answer this question in a lot of different ways of when I feel most confident, but I think that the answer I want to give is that I feel most confident after the first half of the game, because I think that, like for me, the first half is just kind of feeling out the other team, what things are working, what aren't thinking about, how I can adjust my play in the second half and surprise the other team. So that for me is really fun to think about what, what I want to do next and how I can take the upper hand. And so that's where I start to feel really confident.
Thank you. So this podcast is called GIRLBRAVE. What is your definition of being brave? And do you think you are brave?
My definition of being brave is, hmmph, that's hard. I was like, oh, I know the answer. I don't know the answer. I think that, I would say my definition of being brave is being outspoken and not caring what others think of you, but as I get older, I think that being brave means looking at those who are marginalized around you and figuring out how to elevate their voices. I think for a lot of my life, I've tried to elevate their voices by using mine and saying what they need through my voice, but I've realized over time that actually I can be more effective and elevating their voices rather than using my own voice sometimes.
How how do you do that?
I think it's about highlighting people who are saying really important things that aren't necessarily being paid attention to. So obviously, you know, in roller derby, I mean, this could even happen in your team, right?
Like if you see something, if you see someone who is saying some, who's saying some really inspiring things on your team, but maybe they're not the most popular or best skater on their team, rather than taking the things that they're saying and saying them yourself, you should say, "Hey, we should listen to the skater because the skater has some really awesome stuff to say. And like, I love what they have to say." So sort of doing that. And again, I think instead of using your voice, sometimes it really is about uplifting the other voices around you. Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
I have a few more super quick questions. This is what I call the lightning round.
Okay. Oh, okay. I'll be quick on them. No thinking!
Jeans or leggings?
Jeans. Black jeans.
Salty or sweet?
Reading or Netflix?
I really don't read a lot and I should, can I say podcasts? Well, I guess Netflix, if I have to choose between those two.
Who do you admire most and why?
Oh, goodness. That's actually a really hard answer to our question to answer. I don't know. I admire so many people for so many different reasons. It's hard to give one person that I admire most, but I guess at the moment, somebody that I'm admiring a lot is AOC. I think that her story of coming into politics as an everyday human is really special. And I think she's just, she's so brave and she is so fierce and she really is pushing for change that needs to happen.
Yeah, she definitely is. She's definitely not letting all those old men boss her around or push her around. She's standing up them.
What superpower would you like to have?
I would love to be able to hold my breath forever and go deep into the ocean without having to like be scared or scuba gear.
What is your favorite book from when you were younger?
This comes back to the fact that I didn't read very much when I was younger, which is terrible, but I will say I really love Romeo and Juliet and I read that book quite often when I was younger.
And then my last one is what is your favorite band or who's your favorite musician today?
I think, I guess we'll just go with musician and I would say Kathleen Hannah, and she's been in lots of bands that are, you know, while Bikini Kill, I was, should have actually seen Bikini Kill on Tuesday, election day, but that didn't happen for, because of the pandemic, but the show has been apparently rescheduled. So hopefully next year I'll get to see Bikini Kill again.
Awesome. So what's next for you?
What's next for me? Well, I think like most people, we're all just kind of waiting to see where roller derby goes and how long we are out for.
So in the meantime I've been doing a lot of park skating, doing a lot of protesting and hanging out with my dog a lot. So just trying to get by like everybody else.
Yeah. Well, thank you so much again for being on the show.
It's been great talking to you and it's been so fun.
Yeah. You're welcome. Thank you so much for joining me on the GIRLBRAVE podcast.
This episode alone should show you that putting yourself out there and trying to get what you want can pay off. So be brave and be bold if you'd like an encouraging daily text message.
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